Here it is – the last chapter! Once again, thank you so much to everyone who has followed along or left feedback. You're all awesome. :)
The trip home had been long and slow. Splinter had been forced to brace himself against the wall with his free hand for most of the way. Despite his finely honed sense of balance, his steps were less than steady. It had been almost twenty years since he'd had a concussion, but he recognized the telltale dizziness and heavy pain in his head. It was the only reason why he had agreed to leave Michelangelo instead of staying behind himself. Every fiber of his being had rebelled against it, but the reality was that he couldn't fight. Michelangelo was carefree, impulsive, and had an abysmally short attention span...but Splinter knew without a doubt that his youngest son was strong, and more than capable when it mattered.
He paused just outside the lair and gently maneuvered Leonardo against the wall. His eldest son had remained silent and had kept up with Splinter, but the effort had taxed him badly. He leaned against the brick, taking shallow breaths as Splinter cautiously inspected the door for signs of forced entry, nose twitching and ears wide to scan for intruders.
When he failed to find any sign of trouble, the master put his arm around Leonardo's shoulders and steered him inside.
Splinter wasn't really expecting a reply, but it didn't lessen his worry when no one answered. Leonardo had attempted to call his brothers when they had stopped for a brief rest on the way home, but while his T-phone was still in one piece, the screen was shattered and the device only sparked weakly when he had tried to turn it on.
Splinter left Leonardo sitting in the main room while he retrieved first aid supplies. The floor seemed to rise and fall beneath his feet without warning, but he managed to make the journey there and back without losing his footing.
Leonardo lifted his arms away from his body a little so Splinter could look him over. Splinter gently prodded the soft area between his son's carapace and plastron, applying careful pressure over the ribs.
"There," Leonardo said softly, indicating when the examination elicited pain. "There. Ah! There!" He flinched and pulled away from his father's hands, panting shallowly through gritted teeth.
Splinter's ears flattened against his head as a wave of guilt washed over him. "I am sorry," he said quietly.
Leonardo shook his head, blinking rapidly to clear his vision from the involuntary tears of pain. "It's okay," he said breathlessly, trying to smile. "You have to check."
"That is not what I meant." Splinter rested his hand on the back of his son's scuffed and dirty shell. "I am sorry I could not keep you from harm. I tried. But I was not close enough to you and I could not protect you."
"I know, Sensei." Leonardo's blue eyes were full of understanding. "I know you tried. You couldn't have done anything else. I would have done the same thing. And I'm glad it was me instead of Mikey. It's our job, right?"
Splinter's throat grew tight and he couldn't answer right away. Instead, he began to disinfect the gash on Leonardo's arm before retrieving needle holders, suture, and a curved needle from the first aid kit. His son tensed but didn't move as he began to carefully sew the torn skin back together.
"No, Leonardo," Splinter finally managed to say. "It is my job. If I did not believe that Michelangelo could defeat the Foot, I never would have allowed him to stay behind. Even if it meant that I would be captured or killed, as your father it is my job to guard your life, even at the cost of my own. That is not for you to do."
"But...I'm the leader, Sensei. Like you." He said it without any arrogance, his young face calm and serious.
A tangled web of pride, warmth, and fear wrapped around Splinter's heart. "I have seen the way the four of you look after each other. It is one of the many reasons why I take pride in calling you my sons. And I have also seen how you, in particular, will put yourself in harm's way to protect your brothers. It is a noble quality in a leader. But, my son, I need you to listen to me."
He paused in his suturing and waited until Leonardo turned to look at him. "I know that you are aware that just because you are the leader, it does not make your life more valuable than the lives of your brothers. However...it does not mean that your life is of less value. Protect your brothers, but do not let your selflessness and love for them cloud your vision with regards to your own safety. You often remind me of a friend I knew in my early years as a warrior. He was a skilled leader and watched over his men as if they were his own sons, but in the heat of battle he was often blind to the danger that threatened him, and it cost him his life. You are wiser than he, Leonardo, in that you are able to see the hazards of battle. Do not lose that ability. Do not forget that your brothers – and your father – need you. Do you understand me?"
Splinter could see Leonardo carefully pondering his words. The young Turtle was silent for several moments before his mouth curved in a quiet smile and he nodded once. "Hai, Sensei."
When Raphael stumbled again, his leg finally gave out. Donnie lunged forward and caught him with a grunt, staggering under his brother's weight. "Are you going to let me help you now?" he groused, hooking his fingers under the edge of Raph's carapace.
"Yeah, okay. If you insist," Raph answered. He dropped his sturdy arm across Donnie's shoulders, using his taller brother as a crutch.
Don shifted his grip a little, pulling Raph snugly against his side to provide more support. He darted a glance behind them at the darkly curving tunnel. They'd entered the sewer system as soon as they could, deliberately giving the area of the disturbed sensors a wide berth. So far there hadn't been any sign of pursuit. The bandages on Raph's leg had soaked through, sending warm red threads winding down his leg, so Donnie had steered them to walk in the rain runoff in the center of the tunnel. The droplets of blood swirled away in the chilly, ankle-deep water and left no trail.
"We're almost home," Donnie said reassuringly. "Just a little farther."
"I can make it."
Don smiled at the familiar stubbornness in his brother's voice, but his humor was short-lived as he realized that they'd just be back where they started: home, alone, without any idea of where their father or brothers might be. Only this time, Raph was hurt and the Foot were running around looking for anything green with a shell.
Relief washed over him as they rounded the last bend in the tunnel and came to the entrance. He shifted his grip on Raph and reached for the door. "Okay, you're not gonna like this, but I think we need to get you settled and then I'll go out and look for...Sensei!" Splinter looked around when he heard Don yelp. Donnie hurriedly closed the door, hauling Raph in after him.
"What happened? Where have you been?" Splinter demanded. He stood quickly but staggered, catching hold of the top edge of the sunken floor.
"We went looking for you!" Donnie's brown eyes widened in alarm as he saw the soot and burn marks on his father's clothing, and he hurried across the room as fast as he could get Raph to go. The worried wrinkles in his forehead deepened as his big brother came into view. Leonardo looked battered and dirty, and a row of blood-encrusted sutures marred his right arm. "What happened?"
"And where's Mikey?" Raph asked tightly.
"We...had a bit of a rough night," Leo said thinly.
Raph's green eyes looked unnaturally large without his mask as his gaze swept the lair. "Where's Mikey?" he repeated.
"He's on his way," Leo answered. "And he's okay. Or...well, he was when we split up."
Don felt Raph tense, and he had to tighten his hold to keep his injured brother from pulling away. "Raph, would you just...! Quit fighting me, I'll help you down, okay? Give them a chance to explain."
"Perhaps you should explain." The tension in Splinter's deep voice caused all three brothers to freeze. "Explain why the two of you left the lair after I asked you to remain here until we returned."
Donnie gulped. Splinter wasn't angry – not yet – but Don recognized that tone, and he knew that if his father wasn't satisfied with their reasons for disobeying him, the next week (or two) of training would be absolutely miserable. "Okay, well...you know those seismic sensors I've been working on...?"
Mikey glided along the side of the sewer tunnel, tucking his bleeding arm a little closer against his side. He'd taken a circuitous route home – he was pretty sure the eight ninja he'd fought weren't in any shape to come after him, but he didn't know if they were expecting friends. He could have taken a shorter way home if he'd chosen to swim part of the way, but the thought of submerging his injured arm in the cold storm runoff made him shudder.
He shivered again, swallowing hard against the twinge of nausea that twisted his stomach. He felt cold all over, congealing blood a heavy, chilly slick on his arm and down his left side. The cut was deep and pulsated with fiery heat, making the rest of his body feel even colder by comparison. The worst of the bleeding had subsided, but after the adrenaline rush of fighting had faded, the laceration had really started to hurt, and he was starting to feel lightheaded.
Casting one last cautious glance around him, he eased the door to the lair open and slipped through. A burst of warmth exploded in his chest like a firework when he heard Donnie's voice. He recognized the half-distracted, lecturing tone that his brother would adopt when he was trying to focus on something important but still trying to keep his attention on whoever was distracting him. Hope rose in his heart when he realized that if Donnie was here, then he couldn't have been captured by the Foot. But...that meant...Raph.
Nausea gripped him again, but it wasn't from the pain. Heart lurching uneasily, he rounded the corner and stopped short, caught off guard at the scene that awaited him. He saw Leo first, and he was a little surprised when Leo didn't notice him – but the faded, distant look on his big brother's face told him that Leo's energy was focused on trying to tune out the pain of his injuries. Raph was next to him, glowering at the far corner of the lair. He was hurt, too, but he was there. Relief at seeing his entire family together and safe made his knees weak. Splinter was seated with his back to the door. His robe had been pulled off his shoulders, resting in folds around his waist while Donatello carefully carded through the thick fur on his back.
"I don't there's any displacement," Don was saying, "but you've definitely got some cracked ribs. You're lucky – both of you," he added, looking at Leo. "There's still no guarantee you don't have any pulmonary contusions, but the fact that you're breathing normally and haven't coughed up any blood is a good sign. You're going to be in a bit of pain for a while, but you'll be okay." He moved around to stand in front of Splinter, taking the long, whiskered face in his hands as he looked intently into his father's eyes. "At least your pupils are equal. You're sure you don't have any blurred vision or anything?"
Any reply Splinter might have made was cut off by Donnie's sudden harsh gasp as his eyes lifted past his father's shoulder and locked onto Mikey.
"Mikey!" Raph scrambled clumsily to his feet. He was limping badly, but he didn't let it slow him down. He stopped short in front of Mikey and started to reach for him, but stopped, uncertain of where he could touch him. "How bad are you hurt?" he demanded.
Mikey wondered why his brother looked so scared, but when he looked down and saw how much red was splashed across his limbs and plastron, he understood. "Oh. Don't worry," he said vaguely. "Not all of it's mine. Just...half of it."
Donnie caught up to Raph, scanning Michelangelo's blood-spattered body to find the source of the injury. "I didn't even hear you come in," he said, half to himself.
"Uh...ninja, Dude," Mikey said with a smirk.
"It's just his arm," Raph said, voice gruff to hide his relief. "I think it looks worse than it is."
Donnie whistled softly through the gap in his teeth. "It's bad enough. They nearly hit bone," he murmured. His momentary panic had passed and he was outwardly calm again, but his eyes were distressed. "We'll get you cleaned up first, and then I'll stitch you up," he said.
"I'll take him," Raph said, gripping Mikey's right elbow. "Come on, Mike. Time to hit the showers."
"Whoa, take it easy," Mikey complained, stumbling a little as his big brother tugged him along. His legs still felt shaky and he had the sneaking suspicion that relief wasn't the only thing making him feel weak. But, blood loss or not, he was still Michelangelo, and that meant he had to give Raphael a hard time. "You know, you're awfully pushy for someone who's got more stitches than Frankenstein. What happened?"
"More stitches than Frankenstein's monster," Raph corrected. "You know your sci-fi well enough to get it right."
"So now you're channeling Don-'it's-important-to-be-accurate'-atello?"
"Just because you're bleeding doesn't mean I won't punch you."
Mikey smiled tiredly. "Yeah, it does. But, seriously, Raph...what happened? And where's your mask?"
"Later." Worry for his little brother and chagrin over whatever had happened to himself that night made Raphael's reply brusque, but Mikey recognized the mood and the brush-off didn't bother him. Raph steered him into the bathroom and turned on the shower, fiddling with the knob for a minute or two until he was satisfied with the temperature. "You got it from here?"
"Okay. I'll be back in a sec." He limped out of the room, leaving the door open just a few inches behind him.
Mikey tossed his mask and gear in a pile on the floor and stepped into the shower. The warm water instantly turned crimson as it pooled around his feet, and he rubbed at the unpleasant itchy sensation as the dried blood peeled away from his skin. He braced himself and moved his injured arm under the spray. The cut stung viciously, but he gritted his teeth and forced himself to stay still, letting the water flush the wound.
When he turned off the water and pulled back the curtain, Raph was back, perched on the counter and waiting as patiently as he was able. He was wearing a mask again, and holding out a towel and a clean mask for Mikey. Mikey wrapped the towel tightly around his shoulders and stood still while Raph silently tied his mask on for him. He smiled a little when his big brother finished the knot without yanking on the orange tails – Raph must still be pretty worried.
"Come on. Doctor Donnie's waiting." Raph put his hand on the back of Mikey's towel-covered shell and gave him a little shove, walking close behind him as they returned to the main room. They reached the padded bench just in time. Mikey's muscles felt like they had been melted by the warm water and he was feeling clumsy and a little dizzy. He sat down next to Leo, sagging back against the cushions.
Don pushed a cold glass of orange juice into his hand and carefully peeled the towel away from his arm. He frowned anxiously as he inspected the wound. "This is really deep," he said. "I can't just put in some skin sutures and hope it holds. The muscle needs to be stitched back together."
Mikey drained half the glass before setting it aside, shrugging as best as he could. "Okay."
"It's not that simple," Donnie said reluctantly. "It's going to take a little time, and it's really going to hurt."
The juice seemed to curdle in his stomach and Mikey felt his face go a little pale, but he met Don's eyes bravely. "You gotta do what you gotta do, Bro. I'll be okay."
Mikey looked up when he heard his father's deep voice. "Hai, Sensei?"
"Do you remember the new meditation technique I began teaching the four of you a few months ago?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"I would like you to try it while Donatello works on your arm. It will help you to distance yourself from the pain. In truth...that is why I taught you," he continued slowly, solemnly looking into his son's face. "I realized as your battles with our enemies escalated...we might someday have need of it."
Mikey's wide eyes were unusually serious as he exchanged glances with his brothers, but he didn't comment. He just took a deep breath and nodded. "Okay. Gimme a second." He shut his eyes and leaned back against the bench. It took him a while to sort out the thoughts that bounced around his head like pinballs from Raph's game. Adrenaline-laced memories of his battle earlier vied for his attention along with the dark moments where he was afraid Leo would die. His arm was really hurting, and he wasn't sure what to think about Splinter's explanation about this new type of meditation. But he carefully took each mental thread and untangled it, laying his thoughts out in neat rows until he was ready. "Wake me up when you're done, Donnie," he said sleepily. His mind sank beneath soft, warm darkness before he heard his brother's reply.
Donnie watched Mikey breathing for a minute or two before cautiously laying a hand on his arm. "Mikey, can you hear me?" When he didn't get a response, he took a steadying breath and reached for the first aid kit.
Leo wrapped his arm around Mikey's shoulders and tugged gently until his little brother was leaning against his side, orange-banded head pillowed on his shoulder. Leo suppressed a wince as he got settled. Although Mike was small, he was heavy. The pressure hurt Leo's ribs, but he didn't care. Don started suturing – slowly, at first, watching for signs of pain – but when Mikey appeared to remain unaware of his actions, he relaxed a bit and started working quickly.
"Now, Raphael," Splinter said. "Please finish your story."
Raph sighed before picking up where Donnie had left off earlier. Leo listened silently as his brother filled in the gaps, explaining how they knew something had gone wrong but they weren't sure what had happened. He told them how he'd been ambushed by the Foot in an alley and about the freakish circumstances that had allowed their enemy to get the upper hand. And he told them how Donatello had tracked him down and found him just in time.
Splinter sighed as much as his cracked ribs would let him. "While I did ask you boys to stay home until the three of us returned, in this case it would be wrong to punish you for leaving. Our life here has never been easy, and these recent threats have made it more difficult. You took action the only way you knew how, and I cannot fault you for it. I am glad you are safe. And, Donatello, I am proud of how you adapted to circumstances to save your brother."
Donnie flushed a little but didn't look up from his suturing job. "Hai, Sensei."
"But we didn't accomplish anything," Raph said, folding his arms in frustration. "The three of you didn't even need us. It was just a wild goose chase that ended with all of us except for Donnie getting sidelined. And we still need food."
Don stuck his tongue out of the side of his mouth as he finished the last skin suture and snipped the ends, wiping away the last trickle of blood. "Murphy's Law?" he ventured with a shrug. He gently patted Michelangelo's cheek. "Mikey, I'm done. You can wake up now."
"More like Turtle's Law," Raph snorted. "I mean...come on. Shuriken. In. My. Neck. How does that even happen? Turtle luck, true to form."
"Nah, man," Mikey said hazily, lifting his head from Leo's shoulder, eyes still closed. "Not true. We're all gonna be okay, right? Things went wrong, but we managed to turn 'em around. We always do. We make our own luck."
Leo stared down at his little brother for a minute before exchanging astonished glances with Don and Raph. "That's...that's actually pretty profound, Mikey," he stammered.
"Hm? What?" Mikey opened his eyes, blinking in confusion. "What'd I say?"
Leo smiled, rubbing the top of Mikey's head affectionately. "Don't worry about it. I'll tell you later."
Splinter cast a glance at the clock on the wall. "It has been a long night. It is almost dawn. You four should get to bed."
"No argument here," Don said, stifling a yawn. "I'll go out after dark today and sweep the tunnels to make sure there aren't any more traps set. And I'll see if I can pick up some food if I have time." He reached out to Leo and Mikey, giving both brothers a hand up, then hooked his hand around Raph's arm to help him stand. "Wait there, Sensei," he said sternly. "I'm coming back for you."
Splinter could have managed without Donatello's help, but he nodded his assent. He gingerly slipped his arms back into his sleeves and pulled his robe over his shoulders while his sons made their way to their rooms. Donatello took Raphael to his room first. A faint smile touched Splinter's mouth as he heard the half amused, half irritated timbre of Raphael's voice – "Will you quit hovering, Donnie? I'm okay!" – and he watched as Donatello exited the room first to check on Michelangelo for a short while, then entered the room of his eldest brother.
Donatello stayed in Leonardo's room for several minutes. Splinter couldn't hear what was said, and he didn't try to eavesdrop, but he could hear the low murmur of voices as Donatello helped his elder brother get settled. A burst of relief mingled with a pang of remembered fear as Splinter reflected once more on how near he came to losing two of his sons that night. He shut his eyes tightly, forcibly redirecting his thoughts before they could take root in his mind. He did not want his sons' imagined deaths to haunt his dreams again.
"We make our own luck."
He sighed again. Ah, Michelangelo. You are not aware of the wisdom you possess.
"Sensei? Are you okay?"
Splinter opened his eyes when he heard the hesitant query. Donatello stood in front of him, worried brown eyes searching his father's face. He smiled. "Yes. I was just thinking how fortunate I am that you all are safe."
"Yeah. Tonight could have been...bad," Donatello replied, understating the way he often did when he was upset or distracted. He frowned down at Michelangelo's dried blood still darkening the creases in his hands before turning abruptly away to hurriedly – but neatly – pack away the first aid supplies.
"Yes, it could have been. If not for Michelangelo's ingenuity and strength, Leonardo would have died. And as for Raphael, if not for your bravery and skill, he would have been tortured to death."
Donatello paused in his movements and let out a shaky breath. "You really think the Shredder would have killed him?" he asked in a low voice.
"Do you remember what I told you the very first time you fought the him?" Splinter asked. It was a needless question. Donatello never forgot anything.
"You said we were at war." Donatello's jaw firmed and he looked up, fire in his eyes. "They won't win, Sensei. We won't let them."
"I know. You and your brothers have never been content to sit back and let yourselves be carried along by fate, or depend on outside circumstances to guide you. Michelangelo is correct. You have always made your own way." He leaned forward, ignoring the pain in his chest, and gently pushed Donatello's hands away from the half-packed first aid kit. "Let it be for tonight. You can take care of it in the morning."
Donatello sighed, body posture relaxing enough to show how tired he truly was. "Hai, Sensei. Come on, I'll help you."
Splinter put his arm across his son's strong shoulders and allowed himself to be led across the lair toward his chambers. If Donatello noticed that perhaps his father's arm held him a little closer than was truly necessary, he refrained from mentioning it.
Donatello paused when they reached Splinter's room, tilting his head back to look into his father's face. "Sensei, do you believe in luck?"
Splinter's arm tightened around his shoulders. "No, my son. I believe in the four of you."